From hawk to dove: Former president of Colombia discusses peace, leadership in Landon Lecture

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Former President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos receives a standing ovation at the conclusion of his Landon lecture on Tuesday in Forum Hall. His lecture focused on the peace process that led to the end of the Colombian civil war, which spanned decades. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)

“I come in peace to talk to you about peace,” former President of Colombia said at the beginning of his Landon Lecture.

Juan Manuel Santos’ Landon Lecture was the 192nd in the series and focused predominantly on the process of peace that led to the end of the 50-year Colombian conflict, with Santos ultimately receiving a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.

The subject matter of his lecture was serious, but he kept the audience light by peppering in jokes and even, at one point, donning a Kansas City Chiefs baseball cap he purchased while at Super Bowl LIV. He later made his son — a New England Patriots fan — wear it for the duration of the lecture.

“I would like to take this opportunity to punish my son,” Santos said. “You’re going to have to wear a Chiefs hat in the presence of the whole state of Kansas.”

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President Juan Manuel Santos talks about his experience of going to the Super Bowl and deciding to come speak at Kansas State as he puts on a Kansas City Chiefs hat at the Landon Lecture on Tuesday in Forum Hall. He later made his son, who is a Patriots fan, put on the hat. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)

President Richard Myers introduced the speaker by drawing parallels to the series’ founder, former Kansas Governor Alf Landon, and Santos.

“He was willing to take a stand and make a difference in the lives of so many who depended on strong, compassionate leaders to address the difficult issues of the day,” Myers said. “Our mission with the Landon Lecture series is to bring distinguished, inspirational leaders to campus to discuss important topics that will stimulate thought, open our minds to diverse perspectives and spark healthy conversations about issues that impact our lives and well-being, and that’s what we plan to do here today.”

In his political career, Santos is most known for his transition from being a hawk to a dove when it comes to war and peace. He took an unpopular stance during the peace-keeping process toward the end of the Colombian Civil War, allowing the fighting between the government and other parties to continue while conversations were underway.

“I had to be a hawk,” Santos said. “I had to be successful in the war against the [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia] if I wanted to eventually have peace.”

But, Santos said, he never saw members of the FARC as his enemies.

“I remember a former general … came to me when I was Minister of Defense and said to me … ‘Don’t treat the FARC as your enemies, don’t define them as enemies, define them as your adversaries,'” Santos said. “‘The enemies you destroy, the adversaries you beat, but they are Colombians, they are human beings. If you want peace, treat them as adversaries and not as enemies.'”

That attitude, Santos said, shaped the rest of the war and paved a path for peace.

During his time in the Colombian Navy, Santos said he encountered an officer who laid the foundation for his career in peace-building.

“He taught me a very important lesson of life,” Santos said. “He said, ‘If you want to sail and be a good sailor, you always know where you want to go, and you need to choose a port of destiny.'”

Years later, he said that foundation laid by his time in the Navy was strengthened in one conversation with former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela.

“At the very end he told me, ‘You have a beautiful country, but that country will never take off if you don’t find peace,'” Santos said.

The same sentiment was enforced a few years later when he was the Minister of Trade in Colombia, trying to promote trade relations with American corporations. An attack in the capital of Colombia ended the meeting, and a CEO told him the same thing Mandela said.

“Those two experiences illuminated my future,” Santos said. “I found that my port of destiny was trying to seek peace.”

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Although at one point Santos was so popular in Colombia that he founded the Social Party of National Unity and broke a 157-year streak of a two-party system within the governance system by winning a majority, the initial referendum that would have established official peace failed.
(Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)

In his study of peace processes throughout history, Santos said he identified three main components that lead to a successful outcome. The first requirement was that the “military power had to be in favor of the state” to ensure that dissidents would negotiate in good faith. Second, the leaders in the conflict had to consciously believe negotiations that would lead to the end of the war were in the best interest of all parties. And finally, Santos said, a process will be unsuccessful without the support of neighboring states.

He drew comparisons between ongoing Middle Eastern conflicts and other Latin American conflicts, saying the final ingredient will decide the success of those movements.

Although at one point Santos was so popular in Colombia that he founded the Social Party of National Unity and broke a 157 year streak of a two-party system within the governance system by winning a majority, the initial referendum that would have establish official peace failed.

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Santos said other world leaders warned him that his decision to negotiate peace would cost him his political capital, but he said it was the only way. Through the six-year process of peace, his popularity crumbled.

“Do the right thing, however difficult or unpopular it may be, this is what I think,” Santos said. “I was defeated.”

The process was restarted and new negotiations were made. Eventually, peace provisions were passed.

“That was the part where you need to heal the wounds, you need to change the attitudes of people,” Santos said.

Santos told the story of a woman he met whose son was tortured and killed during the war. Before she lost her son, she lost her father and her brother. A week after her son’s death, a young man who was injured came to her door looking for help. Santos said the woman allowed the man to sleep in her son’s bed while he healed.

When the man was leaving, he saw a photo of her son on the wall and he told the woman that he was the one who had tortured and killed her son.

“She looked at him and … embraced him,” Santos said.

She thanked the man and when he asked her why, she said his honesty and knowing the truth of her son’s death released her from a life of hating.

“That type of stories were the ones that encouraged me to continue in this fight for peace,” Santos said.

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Kaylie Mclaughlin
My name is Kaylie McLaughlin and I'm the Editor in Chief of the Collegian. I grew up just outside of Kansas City in Shawnee, Kansas. I’m a junior in digital journalism with a minor in French and a secondary focus in international and area studies. As a third generation K-Stater, I bleed purple and my goal is to serve the Wildcat community with accurate coverage. I am fueled by a lot of coffee and I spend my (sparse) free time watching stand-up comedy.